Michelle (left) with Kartina. “The idea is to bring together the works of talented local designers under one platform,” says Michelle.
It’s commonly said that designers are good at creating but not at selling. There’s probably a lot of truth in that as not many designers are commercially-minded. Michelle Alice Tan of DESIGNation, a design-centric e-commerce start-up, wants to help by creating a platform that will help local designers sell their wares.
A designer herself, Michelle launched her company on Malaysia Day (September 16) last year after she realised that in Malaysia there was no channel for local designers to promote their work or to be recognised.
“The idea is to bring together the works of talented local designers under one platform,” says Michelle. The products themselves are varied, ranging graphic design work to fashion items to furniture to stationery. (Facebook: DESIGNation)
Designers are taught technical skills but not business skills, which is why many designers fail to create a commercially viable business based their skillsets, according to Michelle. So, what’s the solution? “Get yourself a partner who is good in business,” she says.
And that is exactly what she did when she teamed up with Sri Kartina Tjandra, who serves as the business director of DESIGNation. Kartina has had a lot of business and start-up experience abroad, so she takes care of all the business aspects of the company while Michelle focuses on the creative side of things.
For both these ladies, the sense of idealism is very strong. They want to see local designers do well in this country so that they won’t be forced to join a completely different industry or go abroad just to make ends meet. If nothing is done to improve the situation, she says we will find design students switching industries as well as a brain drain among creative types.
DESIGNation is not just a retail channel for designers but also a place for them to test the demand for their products and to promote their brand name. To Michelle, it doesn’t matter if the designers reside local or abroad nor does it matter where they create their products. What’s important is that their work is original and is of high quality. The designer must also either be a Malaysian or has resided in Malaysia for some time.
When she started building the business, she had to approach local designers and convince them DESIGNation was a good idea. Today, less than a year into the business, word of mouth has spread far and wide and now designers are now approaching the company to have their products included.
“Finding designers is not so hard,” says Michelle. “Selling the products is a lot harder.” But this is true of almost any business endeavour. It’s always the selling that’s tough.
What makes it even tougher is that some of the items they sell, such as furniture, can be high-ticket items. And according to Michelle, for anything about RM1,000, people would be hesitant to buy online, which is why DESIGNation has a physical presence in the form of a pop-up shop in Publika, Kuala Lumpur.
Michelle also employs content marketing to help promote sales of the various design products she carries. She mainly does this through video clips of designers who are given a chance to tell their story so people understand the design process involved in creating the products they offer.
But selling local designers’ wares has never been the end-game for Michelle. Ultimately, what she’d like to do is to create some kind of platform that can act as an incubator for local designers. She envisions one that could connect designers to a team of production experts so that get their products quickly developed and marketed through pre-order campaigns.
This will take some time to happen. Right now, Tan is focusing on making DESIGNation successful as a retailer of local design products. If this happens, she would be in a better position to provide to put together the incubator. “Learning to sell is an important skill set,” she says. “I tell that to all designers so I should practice what I preach.”
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.